Why is there a significant lack of women in science? You would think that in 2017 gender roles and discrimination would be a thing of the past, something you read about in history books inbetween the chapters about dinosaurs and the industrial revolution. But unfortunately, that is not the case, especially in the STEM sector. This sector consists of science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects and its workforce is predominantly made up of men.
This gender issue has been widely debated and openly spoken about for quite some time yet little has changed. It’s almost like we can accept that there is a problem here but we shy away from confronting the issue head-on and making a change. What’s difficult to comprehend is how there hasn’t been much improvement when you take into consideration the level of efforts made and the visibility of strong female role models.
So, just how bad is this issue? In short, it’s bad and doesn’t seem to be improving much. This issue is not just local nor is it confined to any one corner of the globe. In Ireland, though there are almost 120,000 people employed in the STEM sector less than one-quarter of these are female. In Europe, less than 7% of all tech jobs are held by women and in the US today the number of females entering computer science is actually decreasing.
A big question we should be asking is: why? Why are women so under-represented in this sector? Why does a massive pay gap exist between men and women employed in these areas? And why are men much more likely to progress in this area than their female counterparts?
This issue is deeply ingrained in society and from an early age gender roles are evident. Where boys may be given building blocks, science kits, and other STEM-based toys, girls instead are more likely to receive dolls and make-up kits. This attitude that science and maths are seen as more masculine subjects may be a core part of this issue and may be at least part of the reason why teenage girls are more often rejecting these subjects. On a University level, though approximately 60% of entrants are female, less than 25% of these women are completing STEM-based courses. Instead, they are opting for more traditionally “feminine” courses such as social sciences and education.
It is becoming more and more obvious that STEM subjects are the way forward. As the world becomes more scientifically advanced and technology plays an ever increasingly important role it is vital that we have sufficient representation of women in this force in order to optimise their visibility and to maximise the potential developments in the field. We need to remove the notion that this is an industry better suited for males and that women do not have as much of a place.
Prof Nancy Hopkins of MIT is an important role model for women in STEM and she has spoken about the extra challenges faced by women. In her opinion, the two main barriers to gender equality in STEM careers are “unconscious bias” which results in exclusion and undervaluation of women, and greater family obligations which describe how the woman is more often left in charge of looking after the family and the home.
What can be done in order to improve these numbers? Firstly, it’s important to challenge the negative gender stereotypes from an early age, then to improve education, strengthen opportunities and champion more female role, models. There are some amazing women taking the STEM world by storm including Chelsea Clinton, Brittany Wenger, Mayim Bialik and Dr. Ellen Stofan. We just need more amazing, strong and intelligent ladies to follow suit and smash those walls of gender inequality down!
By Aimee Fahy
- World Economic Forum. (2017). STEM fields still have a gender imbalance. Here’s what we can do about it. [online] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/03/women-are-still-under-represented-in-science-maths-and-engineering-heres-what-we-can-do